Barbarians in the Suburbs: Ragnarokkr Day 1

Photos by Maria Voutyriadou of metalkaoz.com

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I am unquestionably a man of questionable taste, but I’m comfortable with that. To those of you who dislike my taste in metal, my poor taste is predictable. If somebody puts Slauter Xstroyes, Brocas Helm, Pharaoh, and Blacksmith on a bill, I’ll be there, bank account permitting. Ragnarokkr Fest put those bands and 10 others on a bill and scheduled them to play in Joliet, Illinois, on the weekend of May 18th. When I asked permission, my bank account said yes.

Joliet is about 12 hours from where I live, but it’s as little as 45 minutes from Chicago. For weeks before the Fest, I found myself wondering, “Why not Chicago? Why Joliet?”

I’ve been there before. Joliet is Chicago’s suburban love handles, an unpleasant distortion of a greater and better whole. It’s less a town than an accretion of concrete and pavement that hangs off of Chicago proper. A former co-worker and current resident calls it Toilet. Although the question of ‘why?’ nagged me for weeks, it doesn’t actually matter. The Fest’s lineup is fantastic, and I’m inexorably drawn to the show, Romeo to Joliet.

The drive takes us past General Motors’ Lordstown Assembly plant. I decide that we’d better preview some of the bands on the bill that I haven’t heard. Forgetfulness and new releases have stopped me from doing this beforehand. We try to YouTube bands from the highway, but the mobile signal is weak. Sprint Mobile? More like Trudge Mobile. General Motors, a Sprint cellphone signal, True Metal as a popular genre in America, and a new Necrophagist album: these are my false truths.

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Day 1

Before we went to the show, we walked around Joliet. The venue, Mojoes, is located near a Harrah’s Casino in the heart of Joliet’s business district. Everywhere we went, businesses and restaurants were closed at 3pm on a Friday. We found a mom-and-pop sandwich and coffee shop called Jitters a few blocks from Mojoes. The lights were off, but the door was open. I poked my head in, and the elderly female proprietor was sitting near the door, reading and sipping tea. “Come in!” she said. “I’ll make you something if you want it.” I ask her why the lights are off; she’s conserving electricity because there are so few customers. The local economy is just that bad.

The sandwiches, by the way, are excellent – if basic. Chipotle was as exotic in comparison to Jitters as Ethiopian curry is to someone used to eating the local City Wok’s egg rolls.

And then the Fest began …

There were 14 bands on the bill, each noteworthy. Doom fans should check out Stone Magnum. Nick Hernandez is a sparkplug. He barks the line “… sending chills up and down your spine…”, and demonstrates it by arching his back. Veteran members from Skullview and other bands help them defy the “skip the openers” folk wisdom.

Borrowed Time perform admirably, despite getting fucked over by an atrocious sound mix. I bought their EP. It’s a promising mix of Crystal Logic and US power metal. Their cover of “Necropolis” cements their intentions. I’m excited for this band’s future. They’ve already found their sound and voice.

Blacksmith don’t sound anything like they do on record. The rock ’n’ roll influence comes through, but vocalist Malcolm Mania isn’t nearly as high-pitched as on Fire from Within. I didn’t recognize any songs, so maybe they were demoing new material or playing songs from their unreleased album. Nevertheless, they play a fun set.

A Sound of Thunder are a Maryland/DC/Virginia-area band, and they are coming into their own. Nina Osegueda announces a song with “I’m the only performer here with a pair of tits. Don’t hold it against me. You wouldn’t want to get on my bad side.”

Her voice is huskier than the typical female power metal singer. ASoT’s songs fit into various subgenres of metal that predate thrash, so Osegueda’s versatility and uniqueness are perfect for them. She’s also a fantastic frontwoman, using Mullen-style spirit fingers to draw solos out of her bandmates. Her red LED goggles put a huge smile on my face. She shakes her hips and accentuates downbeats with fist pumps. The rest of the band feeds off of her energy. I’m really excited to see where they go, and I intend to catch them again on the DC club circuit.

If A Sound of Thunder are coming into their own, Voltax have arrived, literally and figuratively. It’s their first US show, and they head directly to the venue, just making it in time. They tune, impress the crowd, and have some drinks afterwards. They play excellent US-style power/speed metal, and the crowd loves them. Their vocalist wins the award for highest note sung at the Fest.

Like Borrowed Time, Pharaoh get fucked over by bad sound. The rhythm guitars and vocals are audible, but the drums drown out the leads and solos, which means that Pharaoh don’t sound like Pharaoh at all. Tim Aymar is struggling to hit notes and stay on pitch. “I can’t hear myself. Can’t hear the guitars either.” He controls his frustration and still conveys the gravitas in Pharaoh’s music. Pharaoh is power metal from the gut and from the soul. Here there be no dragons.

Virgin Steele headline the first day. They are incredibly proficient musicians. Calling them veterans is as understated a description as saying that America is in debt. Because of their music’s complexity, I don’t enjoy them as much as I would if I knew their discography. I need to remedy that.

Their set impresses me despite my ignorance. With just one guitarist, they’re as heavy as anybody else in the show save Stone Magnum. In a fest packed with musically proficient bands, Virgin Steele are the most technical.

By the end of the first day, “why Joliet?” has been superficially answered. Mojoes is an excellent venue, if a bit odd for metal. The floor is tile so clean that shoes stick to it until hundreds of footsteps remove the leftover soap. The venue is new, modern, and stylish. The security staff show interest in the bands and chat amiably with concertgoers and musicians alike, despite being tested twice by attendees. My only complaint is that the sound quality is either awful or perfect.

The crowd is mixed. Three types of people roam the floor. Denim and backpatchers dominate. In between the studs and vests are desk jockeys and Dungeons and Dragons nerds. The desk jockeys exclusively wear shirts for old bands, Diamond Head and Saxon and co. The D&D people missed the memo about metal fashion. I guess fashion’s optional depending on whether you see clothing as part of a character’s charisma stat.

I don’t see a black metal t-shirt all weekend. Most of the crowd wears shirts belonging to bands older than they are. The seething discontent and choked violence that metal crowds exude is missing. Is laidback intensity a thing? “Manilla Road sucks!” is probably the only phrase that could start a fight here.

[See Wednesday’s upcoming post for a recap of Ragnarokkr Fest Day 2.]

— Richard Street-Jammer

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